Children with learning disabilities (LD) often have problems that go far beyond those experienced in reading, writing, math, memory, or organization. For many, strong feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, or shame can lead to psychological difficulties such as anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem, as well as behavioral problems such as substance abuse or juvenile delinquency. “Unfortunately, ” says Dr. Marshall Raskind, an expert in the field of learning disabilities, “these problems can be far more devastating than the academic challenges themselves. Although the severity and duration of a child’s psychological difficulties may vary as she grows up, such issues can find their way into and through adulthood.”
Several leading experts in the field of LD have researched the psychological difficulties often experienced by children with LD and have offered suggestions to parents on ways to help protect their children from developing these problems. In this overview article, we will describe in general terms what kinds of psychological problems may affect kids with LD and their possible causes. We will also provide some warning signs parents should look for and direct you to some approaches that can support your child’s psychological well-being.
Forthcoming articles in this series, which are being developed over the next few months, will explore specific psychological issues that many children with LD face, such as anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
Some explanations for psychological difficulties in kids with LD
To be most effective in supporting your child, it can help to understand some presumed underlying reasons for the psychological and emotional challenges she may face. Although there are a number of theories on why kids with LD may develop these problems, there are two often cited explanations. First, it is not difficult to see why children with LD are at greater risk for developing psychological difficulties if one considers the repeated failure they experience as they fight their way through the educational system, which may misunderstand or ignore their needs.
Despite the child’s efforts and adult promptings to “try harder, ” children with LD may receive little positive feedback. Their academic struggles and failures are often met with disapproval by teachers, peers, and parents. Such disapproval can take the form of negative labeling of a child as “slow, ” “lazy, ” or “dumb.” Rather than developing a sense of pride in their accomplishments, children with LD may end up in a quagmire of frustration and shame.
Such feelings only serve to erode the development of a positive self-concept. In fact, as a result of constant struggle and failure, a negative self-image may develop even when others offer support and encouragement. Low self-esteem and a lack of confidence only serve to further interfere with learning and academic success and reinforce a cycle of failure and negativity. Research conducted by Dr. Kenneth Kavale of the University of Iowa and Dr. Steven R. Forness of the University of California at Los Angeles indicates that as many as 70% of children with LD suffer from poor self-esteem. “Over time, children with LD may just stop trying, ” Dr. Raskind says, “entering a state of ‘ learned helplessness’where they see little connection between their efforts and ultimate outcomes. ‘ Why bother?’they may ask, ‘ No matter how hard I try, I always end up failing.'”
The second frequently offered reason as to why kids with LD may develop psychological problems is the social difficulties they often experience. Research by Drs. Kavale and Forness indicates that as many as 75% of kids with LD have social difficulties such as making and keeping friends. “In fact, social and psychological problems are so interconnected, ” Dr. Raskind comments, “that it may be quite impossible at times to determine which one may have caused the other. Certainly, psychological problems can have a negative effect on social interaction. Research has shown that children with learning disabilities are less accepted, and often rejected by their peers. Teachers and other adults also may tend to have negative views of children with learning disabilities.” Such social rejection can result in loss of self-esteem and negative views of oneself. In addition, social rejection can result in feelings of loneliness, which, in turn, may lead to psychological difficulties such as anxiety and depression.
Psychological and related difficulties of kids with LD
There are several psychological, emotional, and behavioral difficulties experienced by children with learning disabilities, according to the findings of a number of research studies. In the following list of problems experienced by kids with LD, the descriptions of research findings are carefully worded to indicate how strong the research evidence is for each problem. For example, research may only “suggest” some of the findings because there is a lack of conclusive evidence. For other problems, the word “shows” is used to describe findings because there is a group of studies that all come up with the same conclusion.
- Research has shown that individuals with learning disabilities may experience increased levels of anxiety.
- Research suggests that individuals with learning disabilities may be at greater risk for depression.
- Research shows that individuals with learning disabilities experience higher levels of loneliness.
- Research shows that individuals with learning disabilities may have a lower self-concept (self-esteem).
- Research shows that individuals with learning disabilities are at greater risk for substance abuse.
- Research suggests that individuals with learning disabilities may be at greater risk for juvenile delinquency (there is some debate here).
As the parent of a child with LD, you may find this list a bit overwhelming, but don’t panic. You are probably already taking many steps in your child’s daily life — as described later in this article — to recognize, help prevent, or address psychological and behavioral issues associated with LD.
How to figure out what the research means
Parents need to be especially alert when they read or hear news stories that report research results. Often, in an attempt to make stories more interesting and appealing, certain information may be overemphasized or presented in a sensational way, while other, more important information may even be omitted.